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As global expectations around gender equality shift, brands need to act fast to remain relevant. Rocio Restaino, Head of Brand Strategy at Interbrand Buenos Aires, looks at what it takes to become a stereotype-free brand
The world is changing. Demonstrations in favor of gender equality are on the rise in every country, while women’s movements voice their demand for equal rights and opportunities. Economists and human rights organizations globally have produced many reports on inequality, and they all agree – the world is not an equal place. Today, half of the world’s population does not have access to the same opportunities as men in finance, health, legal protection and much more.
As the UN reports, in a vast number of countries men are still allowed by law to prohibit their wives from working outside the home; over 10 million girls under 15 years old are forced to marry; women are greatly underrepresented in parliaments to the tune of 2 women for every 10 men; and only 63 countries comply with the International Labor Organization’s rules on maternity leave.
As the World Economic Forum said in its 2019 report, the global gender pay gap is currently in the region of 30 per cent. In other words, a woman earns 70 cents for each dollar earned by a man. It’s improving, but incredibly slowly. At the current pace it would take 202 years to close the gender pay gap. The WEF also says that if we actively seek to achieve gender equality by closing all existing gaps (financial, legal, health, etc) we would still need to wait 108 years. Interestingly, in the WEF’s 2018 report, they estimated 100 years for the gap to close. In the 2017 report, it was 86 years…
Even though we feel the world is changing rapidly, the truth is that we are ever further from equality.
What does this have to do with branding? Everything.
First and foremost comes a responsibility. Brands can be a crucial part of the inequality problem; in the worst-case scenario they can reproduce gender stereotypes. They may not have created them, but if they reproduce them they legitimize and normalize them. Brands are one lens through which we view ourselves and our society and, as such, have a profound influence.
Second is the commercial argument. People are more informed, connected and demanding than ever before. They question traditional marketing and have a proliferation of choice at their fingertips. Brands need to pay attention to changing customer expectations around gender and diversity but many are lagging behind in understanding this, which brings serious commercial risks.
A recent example is Victoria’s Secret, which was forced to close several stores, and even cancel its famous fashion show, because it was at a disadvantage against competing brands which better represent diversity. We are talking about a historically successful brand which has failed to rethink its way of representing women and ignored new, fast-growth entrants, such as Savage x Fenty, which celebrates women through a lens of inclusivity, not misogyny.
Data suggests that two out of three individuals make spending decisions on the basis of their beliefs and values. It is no longer possible to argue that ethics and brands are disconnected, or assert that what happens in culture does not have an impact on them.
This is even stronger among young people; consumers belonging to Generation Z stated that they had stopped, or considered stopping, buying from a company which had spoken out or behaved against their beliefs. If brands want to remain relevant, they cannot keep doing what they have always done in an attempt to stay in a “safe harbor”. That place no longer exists.
So, those of us who are in the business of brands have a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity to get this right.
What can brand-builders do?
We conceived Brandaid to speed up the adoption of a more progressive gender perspective among brands. It’s not always easy or quick to create change; some major brands have started to adapt their strategies to redefine targets and look for more inclusive insights, but the pace is still slow. Gillette, Axe, Essity, Dove, Nike and others are breaking ground – exploring potential paths, making mistakes, failing, succeeding and trying again.
Today, under the Brandaid umbrella we have research, but we also have a proprietary methodology made up of two tools: A communication tool which helps us measure how far brands are from a gender balanced perspective, based on their communications, and a mindset tool, which allows us to understand what the collective mindset of a work team is, which capabilities that team has to address gender issues, and what type of training they will need to get there.
We also have several products and services we offer to our customers to support them on their way to transformation, such as curatorship for pieces of communication, and training addressed to creative teams.
And in November 2019 we launched The Brandaid Awards, to identify brands who are doing a good job. Inspired by our Best Global Brands awards, we defined a set of parameters and those brands that surpass them go through our communication analysis methodology. Movistar Argentina was the winner this year – they have made great progress in building a gender stereotype-free brand.
How can brands address gender equality issues and avoid gender stereotyping?
There are four key points:
1: Conduct a retrospective analysis – looking at the brand’s history, because the status quo can be reinforced by its historical brand-building. Finding innovative new ways to represent genders, which do not strengthen traits culturally associated with each gender, is a powerful weapon in the hands of those of us behind brands.
2: Understand the true meaning of gender perspective. Avoiding stereotyping does not mean a brand has to stop communicating its key messages and start talking only about the gender pay gap, glass ceilings, or gender violence. The challenge is to make sure we avoid gender stereotypes, while still being able to go ahead with our communication plan. All brands, regardless of their category, product or service, face the same challenge of conveying stereotype-free messages.
3: Look at the brand holistically and trying to avoid stereotypes in all aspects of the development of an idea. The same level of attention should be paid to all visual and verbal aspects; language, symbols, objects, sounds, song lyrics, costumes, characters and, of course, the underlying message.
4: Transversality in gender perspective – one of the most innovative points of the Brandaid project. In other words, having a single gender stereotype-free piece or campaign is not enough – the lack of stereotypes must be embodied in the whole brand. Many brands take advantage of specific opportunities or dates of the year to “talk about diversity”, then return to their usual stereotype-laden communication. So when we analyze gender stereotypes in brands’ communications, we make sure it is a sustained change, reflecting a willingness to rethink the brand over time as gender stereotype-free.
What are good examples of brands spearheading change in gender equality?
Many brands are doing good things.
Essity, through its Blood Normal campaign, has started to break down a damaging taboo that holds women back, in a way that intelligently connects to the product.
Dove is also very interesting. While not perfect, it was a pioneer brand and its last campaign – the “show us” project, which saw them develop an image bank to showcase true depictions of diverse and genuine women – is outstanding in creative and strategic terms, but also extremely useful in practical terms.
Changing categories, Microsoft is another brand I really like. They ran an advertising campaign to bring to light that when thinking of “inventors”, we always think of men, despite the fact there are great women who invented things we use every day, but do not know about. The brand built a strategy around this idea, which not only seeks to facilitate women’s access to the STEAM world, but also generates visibility for women who made history by great scientific and technological work.
What we still do not see often enough are brands that embed gender perspective and diversity, without pointing it out and saying “I’m doing diverse communication.” The next level could be normalizing diversity.
Gender is an effective tool to create a clear brand personality – so how can brands approach a gender-neutral future?
Gender currently represents a primary identity for people. Even before being born, we are already socialized in a certain way – pink or blue, dolls or soccer balls – which will influence us for the rest of our lives. This is what we need to rethink. We need to let each individual decide what he or she really wants in life, and stop thinking that if a person looks like a boy they will want certain things and if a person looks like a girl they will have different desires and abilities. Not all men are strong; not all women wish to be moms.
When it comes to defining brand personality, a brand’s gender should also become less fixed. If we keep thinking that if a brand is for women it should be soft, loving, caring and sympathetic, or if the brand is for men, it should be strong, robust and high-achieving, we are just reproducing the old stereotypes we want to leave behind. Gender does not match people’s personalities in real life and should not do so with brands either.
This is a crucial point. Separating gender from standard personality traits is one of the challenges we have as brand creators, for this is where biases usually appear – behaviors which may, even inadvertently, keep reproducing a status quo which reinforces structural inequalities.
We have a great opportunity to make brands that enhance people’s rights and freedom of choice, show new paradigms and ways of being – and ultimately we can help to make the world a better place.